In his first public interview, Minnesota-born artist Limpio chronicles his path from making custom skateboards in Vancouver, to cleaning up gang graffiti in Chicago’s West Side, to his current home in Argentina. He reflects on using Google Translate to get gigs, paying rent with his art, and collaborating with his girlfriend on a new and ambitious public project.
Tell me about growing up and where you come from.
I’m originally from Minnesota. I was doing a little bit of graffiti growing up in high school, but nothing major. I moved to Vancouver for my freshman year of college and continued doing graffiti. Then I moved to Chicago in 2008 and started getting into bigger pieces and more community work. I worked on the West Side and the South Side [of Chicago] cleaning up gang graffiti with positive images for communities. [The name] Limpio comes from that, cleaning the streets.
Do you remember the first time you drew on a wall?
I was 13 or 14, in high school or middle school. My folks lived in the Twin Cities, which has a bunch of bridges down by the river and it’s all tagged up, so people used to go paint down there. I thought the art of graffiti was cool, it was the culture of the scene that I was in, to be kind of an outcast and not really belong anywhere besides the places on the outside. Graffiti was there wherever I was hanging out, so I got inclined to it.
I used to write this name called BGLE, stupid shit like that. That was my tag for maybe a year, then I tried to get super artsy with graffiti, I switched to Imagine, and then I started doing these weird triangle-faced characters that I actually started using for animation.
Is that what you studied in school? How did that lead to murals?
I originally went to school for animation at Emily Carr in Vancouver for a year. I didn’t like Vancouver and I had gotten accepted to the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and deferred my enrollment, so I ended up going there. I switched from animation my junior or senior year, when I was getting into tattoos and community artwork. I wanted to do stuff with homeless people and more community work, so I switched to doing murals and I ended with a general fine arts degree.
An early animation by Limpio, 2010
How has animation affected your other work?
I draw with one line, which is a style I learned from one of my animation teachers. He told me to take a Sharpie and go to the zoo and draw animals super quick. If you stop, the sharpie bleeds out, so it’s this mode of drawing something and not caring. That’s where my style comes from; the faces you see on the street are one little line.
You get so much specificity out of those single lines; they really have a character. Tell me more about those people. How do you choose where to do it? Are you doing it in the middle of the night?
It’s either [when I’m] drunk or I just see a wall and I want to paint. It’s typically on electricity boxes; I’m not fucking with someone’s house. It’s usually just a little face I’ll throw up to make it a little bit less boring, something super quick. I don’t really think about it. The phrase could be in the moment, like “hey where’s my bus at,” or “what’s going on.”
One of my all-time favorites and the first that I photographed was on Honduras. It was on a turquoise background and said “Yo bro, kiss her.” I remember seeing that and it was really applicable to me in the moment and I was thinking “Oh fuck, I should just kiss her.”
[Laughter] Yeah that was a good one. Me and [my girlfriend] Vicky were drinking at a bar and went out tagging for a little bit walking back home.
How did you and Vicky meet?
[In Argentina] street art is kind of legal, so people leave their emails on walls. I was like, “hey I’m a graffiti writer from Chicago, do you want to paint?” and we started painting together and it just kind of worked out.
What was the image that you first saw and thought “I want to paint with that person”?
She had plants in kind of warm colors. It’s gone now, but it was on the border of Palermo and Colegiales on a brick wall. I saw it on a graffiti tour, took a photo and contacted her through email. When I came back [to Argentina], I also wrote to the BA Paste Up crew and I met them, Boxi Trixi and Gerdy.
Did you know Spanish before moving to Argentina?
[laughing] No. I was super shitty. I did Google Translate for a lot of those first emails. Vicky speaks perfect English and so do a lot of the other people I met, so after the first one it was pretty chill.
My Spanish is better now but it’s not 100% fluent. I’ve just been open minded. I just say “sí” to a lot of things. If I don’t understand I’ll just be like “sí, sí, sí,” and they’ll be like “dude you don’t know what I’m saying,” and I’ll be like “sí” [laughing]. I’m a pretty laid back person.
How have you gone about learning Spanish?
I reached out to two Spanish schools and traded them a mural for Spanish lessons. It was from ten to two in the afternoon, Monday through Friday, and I went everyday the first month and a half. I could have gone for more but, it was a big chunk of time.
You feel stupid, not knowing Spanish. People talk to you and you don’t know what to say. It’s like “fuck dude, I just need to get drunk” [laughter]. So I think that is the reason. This is where I live. To have a relationship with people, you have to be able to talk.
Vicky and I will speak Spanish a few hours a day sometimes, or when we go out. This year I’ve started saying, “Yeah I don’t know what you’re saying,” “una vez más,” “can you tell me again,” just being more honest about not knowing, and then people talk more slowly.
Tell me about your newest project, Face Me Por Favor: How did it start?
Vicky and I wanted to do something about residents in the city. She was doing a lot of illustrations of people’s faces at the time, so we started just doing people’s faces. We had the idea of finding out who lives in the city, the voices of people.
We started doing little wheatpastes at first. Then we thought about questions to ask people, like “what makes you proud?” or “what’s your favorite part of the city?” and then we put those questions up and immediately got a few people that were like “hey we like this, can you do our portrait?”
Right now, we’re at the point where we feel comfortable with what we’re making. We know concretely what the project is and what we want to do and we’re both getting better. Vicky made a new style that is a lot of gradients on the faces. I think we both have styles that are unique, so we’re just trying to push it: trying to go bigger, trying to find better ways of getting the project out to people.
How many portraits have you done so far?
Maybe like 15?
Once they’re up, have you seen people look at them?
Yeah, the first time we did it, we came back to get a photo of it and somebody had pulled them down [laughter]. So it’s been kind of everywhere, some people really like them.
The wheatpaste we were doing was super liquidy and kind of shitty at the beginning, so they’ve fallen off on their own. But now it’s better because the portraits we’re doing are pretty dope, I think people like them.
If we’re really attached to a piece and don’t want to see it ripped down, we’ll talk to somebody about it. It’s also a community project, you know? So by talking to the owner, we have the potential of doing their face or getting them more involved in the project. I don’t think we want to be as illegal as the [graffiti] faces that I draw because we want to be positive in the community.
What has it been like working with somebody that you’re dating?
[laughter] It’s been pretty good. I think we’re pretty attuned to each other. We don’t really fight, we allow each other to do our own styles, pushing each other toward doing something bigger, I think it’s been good so far.
Do you ever give each other feedback on the other person’s work?
For sure, that’s one thing we try to do: “Hey, I think this would be better if it was like this,” or “hey, maybe you should use that color instead,” “that one is not as good as this one,” “you should work on this,” etc.
Do you have any role models or artists that you look up to that have impacted your practice?
Yeah, a lot of street artists. There’s this book called Graffiti World, I got it as a gift for my birthday and I really got into that graffiti. I really like Aryz from Spain, he did a big horse on a bicycle. Etam Cru is another really big one. Just seeing other artists that are getting big and pushing me. It makes me want to be at that level, always making work and trying to find new mediums.
Both of the artists you just mentioned are in different countries. What is the role of documentation for graffiti artists?
Right now it’s pretty big. I [went through] a lot of years of never taking photos of my work. In Vancouver, I worked at a skate shop doing all the custom boards; I made two or three a week and I never took a photo of any of them. Then I went to Chicago and they’re like “Hey man where’s your work…” [laughter]
The last two years I’ve been taking better photos of my work and doing the Instagram thing. I think it’s really important because good photos are the only thing that you need. Good photos, a good website or Instagram, that’s it.
Talk to me about the business side of art: Finding clients and being financially sustainable while being an artist.
It’s brutal man [laughter]. The first few years in Chicago, I was working in a bar and I was broke. I was like “If I’m going to be broke, I should be doing what I want to do.”
If you continue to make something, you eventually start making good money on it, but the first few years it’s brutal. If you’re just doing it because you love to do it, you’re going to get a lot farther. I pay rent with my art, so it’s everyday writing emails to bars, “Hey, do you want a mural, my name is Limpio, etc.”
Even now and especially in Buenos Aires, if someone’s like “Yo, I don’t have a lot of money,” I’ll be like “man I’ll do this mural for like AR $2,000 or AR $3,000.” One job pays for all the paint, and then you’ve got paint for the next four or five gigs. It’s like working for peanuts, but if you’ve got a bunch they add up.
Do you think about how much you could get paid in the US versus here?
This year I do, but here there are fewer rules about painting, so if one day I’m bored, I know I can just find a wall and paint. It’s more about building up my portfolio and then bringing it to the States and making money, and then coming back here and painting really big and taking good photos, then going to the States and being like, “Hey, if you want something big, this is what I do.”
I think it would be dope to do a ten story building. In Minnesota I did my first two-story building it in two or three days. The one in Oakland took me two days, and that’s maybe forty feet by ten feet.
Do you have any advice for other people who are working internationally, specifically artists?
Yes: try to get paid up front. [laughter] I think it’s the same in the States, a contract can be super simple: “I’m going to do this, and you’re going to pay me this by this date,” or half up front. Just get the money, man. Get the cash. Don’t take any checks.
Have you ever gotten screwed?
Yeah, a lot man. Years of it. There’s a bar on Arévalo and Gorriti, I painted a mural for them and I was like “Hey man, if you guys pay for the paint, I’ll do it for like free beer for a month.” So I painted it and I was like “It’s going to be AR $3,000,” and they were like “well, we only have AR $300.” Eventually [after weeks of back and forth] they gave me the money, but it was such a hard process.
In Chicago, I painted a mural with a friend of mine, super in the hood. The guy gave us half the money up front, and when we finished it he didn’t like it, and the friend of mine was like, “dude you’ve got to pay us.” The guy called these super big gang bangers and four of them stood behind us, and he was like “I’m not going to pay you, you want to start something with me?” and we turn around and they’re these big dudes so we’re like “nah man we’re good.” I think it was for like 200 bucks.
Making art in the public sphere, it’s almost guaranteed that it’s ephemeral. You talked about people pulling down portraits that you’ve made. How does that make you feel?
I remember that my first big piece on a downtown corner, I did the stencil for two weeks before I put it up. It was big, 6 feet by 4 feet. After school I was like “Hey man, let’s go by the spot and we can check it out,” and it got buffed — the city painted over it. For doing graffiti in the States and Canada, where graffiti is illegal, at this point I don’t care that people take it down, it’s just part of [the process].
But in Buenos Aires, it kind of stings because that’s not a part of the culture of graffiti, it’s not an art form that doesn’t last, everyone’s pieces are still up. Right now, Macri is paying the government for people to buff graffiti, but you could paint something and it would never go away.
With the wheatpastes [getting ripped down], it sucks, but that just means we have to make better glue, or put it in places that people can’t grab it, or ask the owners if we can paste there. It’s just part of the process of seeing how the public reacts to your pieces. I’ve never had anyone paint on my shit, it’s how people respect the art form when it’s out in the public
As told to Aiden Zucker on February 27th, 2018. Edited lightly for brevity and clarity.
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